Okay, I admit it. I’m a stickler for details and am very picky about how legal documents are prepared. So go ahead, call me Miss Picky Stickler if you must. In my previous career, I was a journalist and acquisitions editor for a major publishing house. I actually liked grammar classes in school (yes, Virginia, they once taught such a thing) so you can pull out your best nerd jokes now.
This obsession came up recently when I told a client that I “preferred” to be the intial drafter of his Decree and other documents, which was a white lie because it’s much more than a preference. I have been appalled at the work product that I’ve seen from some law offices and can now amuse you with these cautionary tales:
Putting the wrong names on the documents. Yes, we all use word processing and sometimes we use an old document to create a new one (a practice I cannot recommend), but really, there is no excuse for not having the correct client names on a document. And when it happens at my office, I cringe and correct the error immediately.
Spelling the correct client names incorrectly. Again, our clients pay us good money to do things accurately, so it is very important that at least their names (and those of their children) be spelled correctly. Of course, I have had a couple of occasions where the parent I represented didn’t know how to spell his own child’s names nor did he know their birthdays, so it wasn’t exactly our fault that those things were inaccurate in the draft of documents!
Using the wrong case number. This can be tricky as so many of the case numbers are very similar, which is why it pays to double check (and we always do)!
Citing rules that were abolished years ago. Come on, now, it’s not that hard to verify rule citations every year. Yes, they do change up those rule numbers periodically and it can make an otherwise great document look less than reliable to cite them incorrectly.
Using first names in a Decree or other form of order. From the bench, we expect a certain level of formality and decorum, so referring to parties as Brad and Jen is just not seemly. Mr. Pitt and Ms. Aniston is fine, but Husband and Wife is preferred, particularly when both parties share a last name (i.e., Mr. and Mrs. Smith).
Using acronyms without an explanation. I would issue a TRO on attys using FLAs in their PSAs, given half a chance. Recently, an attorney provided documents that referred to the “QDRO” without defining what that meant. For the attorneys and judge, it means “Qualified Domestic Relations Order,” but for the clients it was just another Four Letter Acronym (FLA).
Inserting personal information into a public document. One of my biggest pet peeves about taking your divorce to Court is that you are essentially making a public record about every detail of your life. Even though a decree and other documents may have to be filed with the Court, there are certain elements of personal information that don’t need to be part of the public record, such as a detailed list of your debts, assets, account numbers, birth date, etc. I recently saw a document with the children’s Social Security Numbers included. Given our state’s notorious problems with identity theft, you can bet those kids became ID theft victims!
Using emoticons and text language in letters or emails between professionals. One firm’s staff likes to LOL when I ask for documents. Another tells me “OMG I’m so sorry ;-(” when they forgot to respond to a request. An attorney at another firm says “my bad” when he failed to reply timely to a letter. Yet another attorney sends cryptic one line messages from his Blackberry that make no sense, as in “ttyl re case but not til talk 2 client re ltr from BK maybe tomorrow.” Umm, yeah, okay . . . huh?
Legalese. Heretofore and henceforth, the parties, who shall remain nameless until named herein or otherwise, shall refrain from using the formal tense and shall, instead and until further order of the Court or agreement of the unnamed parties, use the actual English language that people can understand. For the love of Pete, who taught these people to write? An Olde English professor of letters at Hogwarts?
Improper punctuation and other crimes against Strunk and White. Okay, so not everyone was an English nerd in school. But with tools like spell check, thesaurus, and grammar check, most people can do middling well. I recently came across a document rife with semi-colons, another devoid of commas, still another with odd placement of commas and periods, applied as if tossing in a bit of salt with the soup, just in case.
So why am I such a Picky Stickler? I will admit that part of it is pure intellectual snobbery and for that I’m sure I will have to repent some day. I was a journalist for years, and then worked in book publishing for even more years. I had an amazing legal writing and contracts professor in law school who validated everything I knew and loved about precise writing. But the biggest reason I am so picky is my sorrow at the damage done by improperly or poorly drafted documents.
I have represented many, many clients in post-decree matters where a modicum of common sense and clear writing would have saved literally tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. I have been the parenting coordinator in cases where the conflict between the parents was completely diffused when their orders were clarified to state the logical intent of the drafter. In co-drafting documents with opposing counsel, it has sometimes devolved into a big pissing contest over comma placement because, in the end, it really did matter, and that one little comma totally changed the meaning of the clause. I have also had several judges and about a dozen opposing counsel compliment me on the quality, brevity, and clarity of my decree documents, so there must be something to this whole grammar thing. And that’s why I’m a Picky Stickler.
Choose Peace ~ it’s more precise!